Even as Microsoft prepares for a future dominated by touch-screen devices, it is steering its Windows system to embrace more of the past.
The divide between old and new is less pronounced in the latest, free update. That’s a welcome change, as that’s one of the things that annoyed many most about Windows 8.
As sales of smartphones and tablets grow rapidly, Microsoft reshaped Windows so that PCs came to look, work and feel more like mobile devices.
Windows 8 has a full-page, tablet-like start screen filled with large icons, or tiles. Traditional mouse and keyboard controls still work, but it’s more efficient if you use touch-screen controls.
Windows 8 has a desktop mode that resembles older versions of Windows, but it steers users towards the touch-centric tile mode.
Many people hated Windows 8 when it came out in October 2012.
Microsoft responded a year later with Windows 8.1. With the free update, people can change settings to boot computers directly into the desktop. Windows 8.1 restores a Start button on the lower left corner of the desktop, though without all the functionality found in older versions. Windows 8.1 also lets people add their favourite desktop apps to a horizontal taskbar at the bottom of the screen.
In short, Windows 8.1 doesn’t try to force people into the tile screen as often.
Still, Windows 8.1 feels like two separate systems. Your favourite desktop apps are on the desktop’s horizontal taskbar, while your favourite tile-mode apps are on the tile-based start screen. How you perform tasks such as closing an app depends on which mode you’re in.
Last week’s update, simply called Windows 8.1 Update, brings more consistency:
The tile screen now has prominent buttons for key controls – namely search and shutting down. No longer do you have to figure out how to pull those options out like a sock drawer from the right side of the screen.
Closing apps in the tile mode used to require moving your cursor to the top, clicking the mouse or pressing the screen until the app shrinks and dragging all that to the bottom. Now, the “x” at the top right is back, along with a button to minimise the app while leaving it running.
That desktop taskbar at the bottom now accepts your favourite tile-based apps as well. You’re no longer left with some of your favourites in one place, and the rest in another. And the taskbar now appears when you’re in tile mode, too, though it’s hidden until you move the cursor to the bottom.
By default, laptops and desktops boot to the desktop mode, without a setting change required on your part. Tablets still go to the tile-based start screen more fitting for tablets.
These tweaks, though small, are significant when considered on the whole. It’s as though Microsoft is acknowledging that tablet-style controls aren’t always best for PCs, especially those without touch screens.
Windows 8.1 Update is a free download.
If you already have Windows 8.1, you can go to “Update and recovery” in the settings. It will come automatically if you subscribe to automatic updates.
If you have Windows 8, you must upgrade to 8.1 first. It’s a free update through the Windows Store.